What I said back then:
So, as I get closer to the end, I notice that there are common threads and themes coming together with these; I thought they were random, but maybe they’re not, really. And here we start with libraries again – Inverness library this time. It didn’t exactly have the widest selection of music, and I used to look through it, wondering if I would like some of the stuff I didn’t know. After a while, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t cost me anything to find out about some of this odd-sounding stuff, and I chose the one with the surrealist painting of penguins on the cover. And I’ll be honest, I didn’t really listen to it properly at first – I think I thought it was tedious and repetitive – but I didn’t mind having it on in the background, and I made a tape of it for playing in the car, so I must have liked it a bit. Then, after we moved to Perth in 1988, we finally invested in a new-fangled CD player. One of the problems of the new technology was the lack of anything to listen to on it – for a long time we owned one Peter Gabriel CD, which was a bit limiting, really. I can’t be prevented from buying music, though, and I scoured the record shops (Oh, OK; record shop) of Perth for bargains. So, one day there was this PCO CD at bargain price, and I snapped it up before I remembered that I didn’t really know if I liked them or not. But I had made a wise choice; this was very accessible, and beautifully recorded, and I loved it. I loved it so much that I got out the old tapes and listened properly to them, too. And I discovered that I loved them too. It wasn’t tedious and repetitive, it was glorious and had much hidden depth – music from all over the world mixed together by someone who knew what he was doing, and played by people who were having a ball doing it.
So, in 1990, working mostly in Glasgow, I decided that we should try to go to a few Mayfest events (in researching this, I discover, to my horror, that Mayfest no longer exists. What is the world coming to?) – and joy of joys, here was a rare live PCO performance in the City Hall. I hoped it would be a bit of fun; I wasn’t prepared for such a joyous evening. Live, this music took on a life of its own, entrancing all who heard it, even those who plainly had been dragged along by an enthusiastic partner. There was a university music class sat in the row behind me, complete with tutor, who were all raving about it at the interval, and never before had I been in an audience which quite so neatly encompassed all ages and types. What even the live recordings on ‘When in Rome’ hadn’t captured was Simon Jeffes’ effortless dry English humour – between numbers, he would deliver some laconic aside or other, which would invariably have the Glaswegian audience falling out of their seats. My clearest memory is of his opening remark; he swung the stand mike round to address us, and smacked himself squarely on the forehead with it:
I saw them once more in concert, at the Festival Hall in the mid – nineties; by then, I owned most of their recorded output, and would foist them on anyone passing – few people got it (but advertising agencies certainly did; PCO music is everywhere…) at first, but I like to think I planted a few seeds along the way. And then, one day in late 1997, I had one of those ‘blood draining from the face’ moments. I opened my newspaper to see an obituary for Simon Jeffes staring back at me. I had to sit down, and I don’t remember before or since being so upset by the death of someone I didn’t know. I hadn’t even been aware he was ill, and he had so much music left to make, I know it. I was even sufficiently moved to write a tribute to him, and send it to his company. I have no idea if they ever got it, but it felt like something I had to do. Since then, I have filled most of the gaps in my collection, bought videotapes and visited websites; I have this idea that there really should be a proper musical tribute, with perhaps a concert version of the orchestrated pieces used in ‘Still Life at the Penguin Café’; there’s no point in hoping to hear them play again, since Jeffes was the PCO, but I have my memories, and they are as strong as any other two of the 40 here. Except, perhaps, for the last one…
What I think now:
Ah. This one’s a bit jarringly out of place, isn’t it? Well, Inverness library is in roughly the right place, and living in Perth and working in Glasgow will be along in a bit, so here is as good as any.
Also, for all its length, I don’t think the original gets over the sheer joy PCO music engenders. Why do I like this weird stuff? Because it’s not weird, it’s elemental and thrilling as well as cerebral and intimate. What’s not to love?
They’re back! Simon’s son Arthur has dusted off the PCO music, and under the name Penguin Café, is – in his words – ‘revisiting’ it. I’ve not heard much, but I think it’s wonderful; it’s not the same, but this music was never meant to be preserved in aspic – like all good music, it can and should be interpreted.
I love the idea that the Penguin Café lives, and I’m looking forward to hearing more. The children of artists don’t always follow through on their parents’ legacy, but young Arthur Jeffes just might.